July 19th, 2020

When you have the right message, but pound it too hard

One thing I should make clear right from the start is that I've always been a strong supporter of PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group has been controversial throughout its 40-year history (it turned 40 this year), due to a variety of opinions and publicity stunts which did not come off well with the public. Among the most famous of PETA's stunts has been their propensity to throw cans of paint onto people who are wearing fur, which I found more overdone than malicious, but PETA is probably most hated for how brutal some of their documentaries are. When I was in college, a teacher in one of my classes once showed us a PETA documentary about how animals are treated in slaughterhouses, and most of the class was literally crying by the end of the video. Reactions were polarized: Some people said that it's good that such documentaries are made because people need to see the real truth, while other people become extremely upset over it, asking why PETA feels the need to disturb the general public with such horrific content. I've generally been in the former camp, because it's always been clear to me why this must be done: If people didn't see the truth, they wouldn't believe it. Perhaps some people look at the smiling, dancing cows and pigs visible on some meat products and imagine that these cartoon representations actually bear some relation to the sentiments of animals in meat-processing facilities. It is necessary to give people a good, clear dose of reality if they are to understand that the problem is not just that animals are killed; the problem is how animals are treated while they are still alive. In meat-processing plants, animals live and die in the most horrifying, cruel circumstances, and it is necessary for the meat-eating public to see this for themselves. One of PETA's documentaries was cleverly titled Unnecessary Fuss, in reference to a remark made by neurosurgeon Thomas Gennarelli, who at the time ran an experiment lab in which brain damage was traumatically inflicted upon baboons. Gennarelli refused to describe the nature of his research to the media, declaring: "I'm not willing to go on record to discuss the laboratory studies because it has the potential to stir up all sorts of unnecessary fuss. We're trying to keep ourselves out of the newspapers." If you watch the film, you'll see why. PETA had the right attitude here: "You think this is unnecessary fuss, huh? We'll show you some damned unnecessary fuss." (That's not a quote from PETA; those are my words characterizing the motivation behind the film.) Like many of PETA's documentaries, Unnecessary Fuss is extraordinarily difficult to watch, but I don't see what the point of such a documentary would have been if they had softened its view of reality. People need to know the truth.

In recent years, however, PETA have become somewhat different in what causes they adopt and how they present those causes to the public. They've repeatedly had public campaigns featuring nude women who declare: "We'd rather wear nothing than wear fur", which might sound like a cute slogan but comes across more as a silly way to grab sensationalist media attention than to draw attention to the real issues. PETA also got involved in the question of animal copyright in the "monkey selfie" case, when a macaque trigged a camera in 2011, producing arguably the first case of an animal taking a photograph of itself; because copyright law in the USA only applies to human beings, the photograph was considered as being in the public domain, whereupon PETA chimed in and declared that the macaque should own the copyright to its own photograph. Whether you agree or not, I can't help but feel like this is a silly non-issue that only distracts from what PETA really should be talking about.

Recently, on July 13th, 2020, PETA came into the news again when their Twitter feed featured a graphic image of a cat which had been mutilated in a research lab. If you have not seen the picture in question and do not know what it is about, I would advise you not to search for it; believe me when I say that you can live well enough without having seen this photograph. The outcry against PETA for posting the image was, I think, quite damaging for PETA's public image; this is an organization which can only thrive on public support, and it is not doing itself or its cause any favors by making an enemy out of the general public.

The problem is not PETA's message, because the message is obviously right. Some people may have the impression that I am a cruel person due to my frequent assertions that people who are damaging the world or their society need to be killed if they cannot be reformed, but I do not consider killing to be cruel; an organism which cannot thrive healthfully in its environment is better off being euthanized than being forced to live in a world where it doesn't belong. I do not have any moral objections to killing so long as it is justified, so long as it is being done to remove life which cannot reasonably be expected to live well. But one thing I cannot and do not tolerate is cruelty. The lowest form of life is one which does not care about the suffering of another, and I do not object to the removal of such life forms as unworthy of life. If I had ever found myself in Gennarelli's lab, I would have personally killed every employee there and walked out with a clean conscience. Doubtlessly, many scientists will say that I am an enemy of science, but I consider myself an advocate of science; what I oppose does not deserve the title "science". Even "cruelty" and "inhumanity" seem too weak; "monstrousness" or "abomination" are perhaps closer, but I have seen many things in my life for which there are simply no words. Some things you just can't describe; you can only pull the trigger if you're in a position to do so, then walk away and try to forget what you've seen.

The thing is, I understand what PETA are trying to do, and I empathize with their mindset. When I was a child, I wanted to do something to "wake up" the world: I wanted to collect some footage of the worst atrocities that exist and show it to the world. I was under the impression that people are too ignorant, too quick to turn away from anything which they don't like, too willing to forget what they know so that they can be blissfully ignorant. Many people believe that they "must be cruel to be kind", that to hammer the truth is the best approach because people need to wake up to its reality. I grew up in an environment of constant child abuse, and abuse was all I knew growing up; I thought that the world outside my house was sleeping and needed to know what was going on. Now, as an adult, I understand that people have no shortage of information on atrocities: They read such information every day in the news. The problem is not that people need to be made aware of what's going on in the world, because they already know about it. Trying to shock them into action by showing them ever more horrifying truth is not going to work. Many people will just turn away and ignore the truth you show them, and the people who take the time to watch it will just grow numb to it. What can they do about it, anyway?

This is part of the problem which PETA finds itself in now. Showing information on what happens to animals in meat-processing plants is well and good, because the only reason those things happen is because most people eat meat; if people stopped eating meat, those things would stop happening, and so you can make a difference in the world by showing that footage to the public, because that is something which people actually have the power to stop. Scientific research is much more difficult to influence, because it does not exist in response to any consumer group; there isn't really a lot which most people can do to stop it. You can speak out against it, but speaking out does nothing; it's going to keep happening regardless of what anyone says. One of the problems with PETA's recent tweet is that it has no context: it does not say where the cat is, what happened to it, or why, which means it can serve no purpose except to shock and upset people, which is counterproductive to PETA's goals. PETA has stopped being an organization of public advocacy, a group which says "Here's what you can to do prevent these abominations", and started becoming more of an ideological bully, a group convinced that because it has the moral high ground, this gives it the right to abuse the public with the truth. This is terribly unfortunate, because as I said at the very beginning, I've been a strong, lifelong supporter of PETA, and to see this happening to it now is agonizing on so many levels. It's not just the lost trust that hurts; it's the realization that one of the world's foremost organizations for speaking out for animals (animals being a group which cannot speak for themselves) is self-destructing at a time when it is still very much needed in the world.

I think that I am a pretty emotionally hardened person. I have lived in cruelty all my life, and I have reached the point where I can take a lot. I suppose I am not unique in this regard; we are all surrounded by cruelty constantly. Even so, I cried when I saw the picture of the cat. I cannot, in all honesty, say that I regret seeing it; I suppose it is better that I saw it than that I remained unaware of it. And yet I do not really know what I can do about it, or what anyone can do about it, other than the obvious solution of not doing horrible things. I think that PETA have gotten themselves into the ideological trap of having the right message, but not knowing how to present it to the public in a practical way, resulting in a group that just pounds its message too hard, such that people become numb and apathetic toward it, which is precisely the opposite of what is supposed to happen.

Every conscious being can reach a point where it is overwhelmed by horror, where it is so horrified that it can no longer react in any empathetic way to things which it should be able to empathize with. To know a lot is not always an advantage; if you know the full extent of the suffering in the world, it becomes so overwhelming that you get the feeling that it's hopeless. This is surely what Dostoevsky meant when he declared, in Notes from Underground, that being "too aware" is a sickness.

I'm sure that I've done things like this in the past; perhaps not as extreme, but really, the essence of my writing for the past 20 years has been to not hold back with telling people the truth that I think they need to know. If you've read my blog for the past 10 years, you probably have an idea of what I'm talking about. No, I don't take any pleasure in disturbing people, but yes, I'm willing to do so if I think that they need to know something. I realize that this limits my audience; doubtlessly, more people would want to read what I write if I wrote something more pleasant. I'm not saying that I never try to moderate what I want to say: I do make the effort to express myself constructively and rationally rather than explosively, but I don't know that it really does much good. At the end of the day, I'm sure that most of what I've written would probably be extremely depressing for most people. How many people in the world would want to willingly read countless, endless reflections on the misery and hopelessness of humanity?

When I was a child, I was furious with people who turned away from the abuse they knew I was experiencing and simply washed their hands of it. I swore that I would never commit such willful ignorance if I survived to adulthood. Today, I understand that focusing on real-life horror doesn't help anyone; as I said before, "speaking up" doesn't do anything. If you can change something, change it, but any thinking person with a reasonable grasp on reality understands that there are many, many wrongs in the world which they do not have the power to change. Constantly hammering them with that reality does not help anyone.

With this understanding, I'll be taking a step back from this blog. I don't mean that I'll stop writing; I don't intend to stop altogether. What I mean is that no one benefits from me just beating them senseless with a message, no matter how true or morally virtuous that message is. You are responsible for your own words; before you speak or write them, you need to consider what effect they are likely to have on their readers, and whether that is the effect you want to create. Truth alone is powerless unless thinking human beings are both willing and able to act upon it. I must write not only to the world, but for the world. As someone with the gift of being able to write, I must have the discipline to use that gift wisely and well, to people's benefit rather than to their detriment.

To anyone who may read this, then, please understand: You are not a good person or a bad person, because there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person. All people have both goodness and badness in them, and are capable of doing good things and bad things. Any human being is only capable of doing what they believe to be right, based on their view of the world. It's not right or wrong; it's just who they are. You can and should try to understand people whenever possible, but you're going to end up doing things which other people disagree with, and that's okay. Look and listen: Look at the world and its people and listen to them, and also listen to your own heart and rational, reasonable mind. Then make the best decision you can based on what information you have. If you can do this, no one can justly blame you for what you do. All this being the case, though, I will still advocate for the death penalty for cruelty.

Thank you for reading, everyone. May you live well.

Lebewohl